In San Bernardino, a legendary waitress gets a COVID-19-safe memorial, with tacos to go

Mourners release balloons at a memorial service for Lucy Reyes.
Mourners release balloons at a memorial service for Lucy Reyes, who worked at historic Mexican restaurant Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino for 68 years.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

If ever there was a San Bernardino resident who deserved a fiesta for her funeral, it was Lucy Reyes.

She worked at Mitla Cafe, the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, for 68 of its 83 years, retiring in 2018. Her loyal customers included the mighty — politicians, athletes, Cesar Chavez — and multiple generations from hundreds of families in the city’s West Side barrio.

There was also the young World War II veteran who showed up nearly every night in the early 1950s to eat Mitla’s famous hard-shell tacos. That nice Glenn Bell, Reyes always cracked to the many food reporters who trekked to Mitla in recent years, sure had a hit with his Taco Bell.

Reyes stayed in San Bernardino while so many others left, and saw it turn from a boomtown on Route 66 to a cautionary tale of urban decay. She became a reassuring lodestone, a reminder of what was and could be again.

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Denise Vara brings balloons and photos of Lucy Reyes to the memorial service.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“Mom was like a human Facebook,” said Reyes’ son, Andy. “If you needed to know anyone in San Bernardino, and who was related to who, she knew.”

But when Reyes died July 13 of a heart attack at 86, her family and co-workers faced a dilemma.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom had once again banned places of worship from opening in the state’s most coronavirus-afflicted counties. Local mortuaries were booked for weeks. Many of Reyes’ closest friends were elderly themselves or immunocompromised.

Lucy needed — deserved — a send-off.

So her descendants — two surviving children, 10 grandchildren, and too many great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren for anyone to offer a definite count — decided to hold a socially distant memorial in the Mitla Cafe parking lot on July 25. That day would’ve been her 87th birthday.

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On a blistering Saturday morning, customers shared Lucy stories outside Mitla — currently offering only takeout — as they waited for the noon ceremony and sneaked in a quick to-go breakfast.

Mercy Aguirre ties balloons in memory of her longtime colleague Lucy Reyes.
Mercy Aguirre at the memorial service of her longtime colleague Lucy Reyes.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Mercy Aguirre came early to drop off flowers and avoid any crowds. She made flour tortillas alongside Reyes for 33 years. “Lucy was good,” the 80-year-old said. “Always a smile, always there for you. We never did determine who was the real tortilla champion, though.”

Cherie Gonzalez, 52, stood in the shade of an organ pipe cactus, holding a bouquet of purple balloons. “Mitla is, like, way back for everyone, and Lucy is the last of the originals,” she said. “We had to come out and pay respect.”

Rachel Clark served as San Bernardino’s city clerk for 21 years. She broke down thinking about Reyes while waiting in her minivan for an order of chorizo and eggs from the cafe. “She always made you feel like you were coming home,” Clark said.

Patty Martinez, who has worked at Mitla Cafe for 33 years, remembered how Reyes immediately embraced her when Martinez arrived in the United States from Michoacán in the 1980s with only a bicycle for transportation.

“She found out and said, ‘I’m going to pick you up and drop you off until you make enough money to get a car,’” said the 54-year-old. “Lucy always treated me like a daughter, and my children like her grandchildren.”

Patty Martinez, who has worked at Mitla Cafe for 33 years, called Lucy Reyes her best friend.
Patty Martinez, who has worked at Mitla Cafe for 33 years, called Lucy Reyes her best friend.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

After Reyes retired, Martinez took tacos to her every week until just two weeks before she passed. Since the rise of coronavirus in March, Martinez would just drop off dinner on the front steps of the Reyes house and wave from outside. On the final visit, Reyes waited in front of her door.

“I tried to stand away from her, but she wanted to see me,” Martinez said. “I think she knew it was time.”

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The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Reyes was born in 1933 and grew up on a chicken farm in Devore, Calif. Her family eventually moved to San Bernardino, and Reyes found job at Mitla as a dishwasher in 1950 while still in high school.

She never worked anywhere else.

Reyes did everything: wait tables, prep food, train employees, pick up the phone with a high-pitched “Hello, Mitla!” that West Siders remember as fondly as any childhood TV jingle.

“Lucy was that dream employee who was a mentor, a friend, and really a family member,” said Mitla co-owner Michael Montaño, the third generation of his family to run the diner. “She embodied the spirit of San Bernardino. She never gave up on it.”

Ricarda Reyes touches a photo of her mother, Lucy Reyes, at the memorial service
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“I can’t tell today from yesterday, but she remembered everything,” said Irene Montaño, Michael’s mother and the daughter-in-law of Mitla’s founders. “People didn’t even have a chance to sit down and Lucy was already writing their order.” She, Reyes and Martinez liked to take Metrolink on their days off to visit Olvera Street or Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The Montaños eased Reyes’ duties as the decades passed. Her schedule went from full time to a couple of days a week to a few hours a month. Michael bought her a personal air conditioner and even opened up a long-shuttered takeout window so customers could talk to Reyes while she peeled potatoes and chiles.

The parade of fans, Michael said, never stopped.

“I didn’t realize until I was older that she wasn’t my actual aunt,” said John Robles, 46, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy who grew up down the street from Mitla and worked alongside Reyes from high school through college. “She always told me to get ahead in life — and when I did, to always help people in need.”

Hundreds attended a 2018 retirement party held at Mitla’s banquet room, where customer after customer soliloquized Reyes.

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“No one even saw it as a goodbye,” said Michael, 44. “She was just not going to work anymore.”

She spent her final years with a granddaughter, Vanessa Vara, who was among the first family members to arrive at Reyes’ memorial.

“God, it was such a privilege of being able to take care of someone who was so respected,” said her wife, Denise. “We want to send her out like a legend.”

Patty Martinez takes an order from a customer at Mitla Cafe.
Patty Martinez, right, takes an order from a customer at Mitla Cafe.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Vanessa wore one of Reyes’ trademark china poblana blouses. She looked over a Mitla parking lot fence prettied with balloons and flowers fake and real. Someone bought a small banner, on which people could write their condolences with a Sharpie. Two large photos of Reyes leaned against tomato cans on a table that included bottles of cold water and hand sanitizer.

About 55 people finally showed up. Masked attendees spaced out in their quarantine pods, using balloons to futilely fend off the relentless sun.

“It’s a blessing to know how much she was loved,” said Leonard Gomez, a maintenance worker and husband of another Reyes granddaughter. “It’s so overwhelming we could do this. It goes to show how one person could affect so many.”

At about 12:30, Gomez yelled for everyone to gather around him. He urged folks to get close — but not too close.

The 47-year-old offered thanks on behalf of the Reyes family and called Lucy “an amazing woman. Even if she didn’t like you, she still loved you.” After a quick prayer and a quick “Happy Birthday,” everyone released their balloons.

Reyes’ friends and family and customers looked up to the sky, fretful that the balloons would get caught in a thicket of power lines and telephone lines. But a sudden, refreshing breeze pushed nearly all of them through. People looked on until the balloons were specks against the big blue sky. Some wept; some stayed silent.

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Then they crossed the street to Mitla. Taco time — to go, of course.